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G.Skill Phoenix 100GB Solid State Drive Review

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AkG

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There is no doubt that SandForce-based drives are the flavour of the month in the SSD market. In a relatively short amount of time, more than a dozen drives sporting the new SandForce SF-1222 controller have been released. To give you an idea of where we stand, both the OCZ Vertex 2 and Corsair Force F100 were run through our benchmark process and (not including the drive in this article) we have additional SandForce products in the pipeline from OWC, Mushkin and Patriot. From a price / performance viewpoint, these drives fit most manufacturers’ bills perfectly but from a consumer perspective, they are all basically the same barring a few custom firmwares here and there.

Today we are going to be looking at yet another SF-1222 drive: the G.Skill Phoenix 100GB. Many will likely roll their eyes at this point and incorrectly think we’ll be seeing more of the same as in past SandForce reviews. However, G.Skill has taken a completely different approach to the SandForce conundrum.

The problem with the SF-1222 is not a lack of power but in regards to firmware. As mentioned in previous reviews, SandForce has decided to hobble the performance of their SF-1200 controller series to make the higher-end SF-1500 series stand out. Only OCZ and their Vertex 2 are exempt from this which tends to put other companies such as G.Skill at a distinct disadvantage. In theory, the Phoenix is a direct competitor to the Agility 2 (basically a Vertex 2 sans custom firmware) but through the use of some clever methods of their own, G.Skill’s engineers have supposedly pushed this drive into Vertex 2 territory.

Even though the Phoenix is a newly release drive it is actually quite widely available at retailers and e-tailers alike for as little as $363. This is nearly $50 less then most of the other SandForce drives out there. Is this price indicative of lower performance or does it just represent a great value? We’re about to find out.

mfg.jpg

 
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AkG

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Specifications

Specifications



<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/specs.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/g-skill-phoenix1-sandforce-300x196.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
 
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AkG

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories


GSKill_Phoneix_box_f_sm.jpg
GSKill_Phoneix_box_b_sm.jpg

Compared to the last two G.Skill solid state drives we have looked at (the original Falcon and the Falcon 2), the box which the Phoenix ships in is quite stunning. Looking at it, we can see that G.Skill has opted for the more mundane list of features and specifications which shouldn’t impact anyone’s buying decisions too much.

GSKill_Phoneix_box_o_sm.jpg

When you open the Phoenix’s box and take a peak inside you can see that G.Skill, much like OCZ, has opted for the tried and true foam “book” style protection scheme. However, unlike the Vertex 2 which uses a single thickness of foam, the Phoenix lies in a double thick case.

GSKill_Phoneix_access_sm.jpg

Moving on to the list of accessories that accompany this SandForce based drive, we can see that this is the first SandForce drive does not come with a 2.5 to 3.5 adapter. In fact, this drive comes with is the installation pamphlet. This is disappointing to say the least, but considering the extremely low price point this drive comes in at, we don’t consider it a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination.
 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at the G.Skill Phoenix 100GB

A Closer Look at the G.Skill Phoenix 100GB


GSKill_Phoneix_top_ang_sm.jpg
GSKill_Phoneix_bottom_ang_sm.jpg

As with the G.Skill Falcon series of solid state drives, the Phoenix comes in clad in an all-metal black case. The colour scheme of the top label is a continuation of the exterior box’s colour scheme which does make for one handsome looking drive.

One interesting thing to note is the power consumption of the Phoenix. Unlike the Vertex 2 which is rated for .35a off the 5volt line (1.75watts) the Phoenix is rated for 0.55a (or 2.75watts). This may “only” be a difference of one watt, but that is a whopping 36% difference.

GSKill_Phoneix_ports_sm.jpg
GSKill_Phoneix_ports2_sm.jpg

It seems like G.Skill has broken with the pack when it comes to not reusing another past generation drive’s enclosure. This is evidenced by the lack of jumper pins next to the SATA connector.

GSKill_Phoneix_board_top_sm.jpg
GSKill_Phoneix_board_bottom_sm.jpg

Since this is a SandForce-based drive we were not overly surprised by the layout of the PCB. You get the typical “C” shape layout to the 8 MLC NAND chips on each side of the board (16 total) with the SandForce controller in the middle. Also like all SandForce based drives there is no external cache chip to clutter up the board. What is interesting to note is that this PCB does not appear to be a SF1500 board that has been “downgraded” to the consumer world with the use of the SF1200 controller and MLC NAND. The reason we say this is that there appears to be no room for the typical (but missing) super-capacitor seen on both the Corsair F100 and OCZ Vertex 2.

You can look at this custom PCB in one of two ways: either G.Skill does not intend to ship a SandForce SLC drive (which by perforce would be a SF1500 based drive) and thus a higher end PCB is not needed or they just wanted so save some money. If this is how G.Skill was able to lower the price of their drive we think it was a very smart move. After all, the lack of a super-capacitor and its tracing won’t negatively impact mass market performance.

GSKill_Phoneix_controller_sm.jpg

When it comes to the controller used, the Phoenix of course uses the SandForce SF-1222TA3-SBH (AKA “SF1200”) controller. This is a SATA revision 2, 3GB/s controller which supports native command queuing (NCQ), TRIM support and S.M.A.R.T . Much like Intel licensed the central core of their controller chip from a 3rd party so to did SandForce. The heart of the SF1200 is a licensed Tensilica Diamond Core 570T CPU which is a 32bit RISC processor. However, the SF1200 is more than just a 570T as this is just the building block upon which the 1200 is built.

GSKill_Phoneix_nand_sm.jpg

As you can see in the above photo, the way G.Skill got around the intentionally hobbled performance of the SF-1200 by simple brute force. Every SandForce drive we have had the privilege of cracking open has had mid-grade orientated NAND. Basically, G.Skill went “old school” and opted for the exact same NAND as that which graced our original Falcon drive. To be precise this is Samsung K9HCG08U1M-PCB0 MLC NAND which are most likely based on Samsung’s 51nm engraving process.

The upside to using these older chips is they have been shown to be very effective in the past and are in fact faster then the chips which graced our Vertex 2 (as seen by the Falcon 1 versus Falcon 2 results). So while the Phoenix’s controller may not be able to harness the full potential of these high grade (yet older) chips, the end result is an easy and inexpensive work-around for a firmware limitation imposed by SandForce. Brilliant.
 
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SKYMTL

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A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More

A Look at DuraWrite, RAISE and More


Corsair_Force_sandforce_logi.jpg


Let’s start with the white elephant in the room and explain why this 100GB drive is in reality a 128GB drive. The Vertex 2 has sixteen 8GB NAND chips onboard which gives it a capacity of 128GB, but is seen by the OS as 100GB. This is called “over-provisioning” and happens when a manufacturer has their drive consistently under report its size. Manufacturers use this to help increase IOPS performance and also extend life via wear leveling (as there is always free cells even when the drive is reported as “full”) and even durability since the drive has cells in reserve it can reassign sectors to as the “older” cells die. Having the Vertex 2 giving up 28GB of its capacity to this “buffer” is extreme to say the least when you compare it to the Vertex 120GB with its more typical 6.28% (8GB) set aside. Some (like OCZ, Corsair, etc.) have also released “extended” drives which sport firmware that basically does away with this over provisioning which in effect increases the overall usable space.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/F100/duraclass.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

As we said, over-provisioning is usually for wear levelling and ITGC as it gives the controller extra cells to work with for not only keeping all the cells at about the same level of wear. However, this is actually not the main reason SandForce sets aside so much. Wear levelling is at best a secondary reason or even just a “bonus” as this over-provisioning is mainly for the Durawrite and RAISE technology. We will explain what those two technologies are but for the time being, let’s just say that while it there be “empty” space to some extent, it’s not really going to be 28GB of empty unused cells. Rather, this space is going to be used for other primary purposes.

Unlike other solid state drives which do not compress the data that is written to them, the SandForce controller does do real time loss-less compression. The upside to this is not only smaller lookup tables (and thus no need for off chip cache) but also means less writes will occur to the cells. Lowering how much data is written means that less cells have to be used to perform a given task and it should also result in longer life and even fewer controller cycles being taken up with internal house cleaning (via TRIM or ITGC).

Corsair_Force_Fact5.jpg


Longevity may be a nice side effect but the real purpose of this compression is so the controller has to use fewer cells to store a given amount of data and thus has to read from fewer cells than any other drive out there (SandForce claims only .5x is written on average). The benefit to this is even at the NAND level storage itself is the bottleneck for any controller and no matter how fast the NAND is, the controller is faster. Cycles are wasted in waiting for data retrieval and if you can reduce the number of cycles wasted, the faster an SSD will be.

Compressing data and thus hopefully getting a nice little speed boost is all well and fine but as anyone who has ever lost data to corruption in a compressed file knows, reliability is much more important. Compressing data means that any potential loss to a bad or dying cell (or cells) will be magnified on these drives so SandForce needed to ensure that the data was kept as secure as possible. While all drives use ECC, to further ensure data protection SandForce implemented another layer of security.

Corsair_Force_Fact4.jpg


Data protection is where RAISE (Redundant Array of Independent Silicon Elements) comes into the equation. All modern SSDs use various error correction concepts such as ECC because the simple fact of the matter is with any mass produced item there are going to be bad cells and even good cells are going to die off as time goes by; yet data cannot be lost or the end user’s experience will go from positive to negative. SandForce likes to compare RAISE to that of RAID 5, but unlike RAID 5 which uses a parity stripe, RAISE does not. SandForce does not explicitly say how it does what it does, but what they do say is on top of ECC, redundant data is striped across the array. However, since it is NOT parity data there is no added overheard incurred by calculating the parity stripe.

Corsair_Force_Fact2.jpg


According to Sandforce’s documentation, not only individual bits or even pages of data can be recovered but entire BLOCKS of data can be as well. So if a cell dies or passes on bad data the controller can compensate, pass on GOOD data and then mark the cell as defective. As we said, SandForce does not get into the nitty-gritty details of how DuraWrite or RAISE works, but the fact that it CAN do all this means that it most likely is writing a hash table along with the data. This would explain on how it can not only assure data integrity but also why they have set aside so much of the storage capacity for these features.

SandForce is so sure of their controller abilities that they state that the chances of data corruption are not only lower than that of other manufactures’ drives, but actually approaches ZERO chance of data corruption. This is a very bold statement, but only time will tell if their estimates are correct. In the mean time, we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt and say that at the very least data corruption is as unlikely with a Vertex 2 as it is on any modern MLC drive.
 
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AkG

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Firmware, Trim & Self Maintenance

Firmware, Trim & Self Maintenance


CDInfo.jpg

The firmware which comes preloaded on the Phoenix is labeled as "305A13F0" which is the “mass production” firmware that is common referred to as “305” or “3.0.5”. As such, this firmware has the all the tweaks and bug fixes that go along with this latest firmware revision but also has the all the down sides to. As discussed in an earlier review, SandForce hobbled the small file IO/s performance of all but the Vertex 2. This means in theory that this drive should “only” be as fast as the Agility 2 and not a direct competitor for the Vertex 2. Well as we saw in the previous section, G.Skill was having none of that and has in theory negated at the very least SOME of the negative effects associated with SandForce’s move by adding higher-end NAND to their drive.

sandforce_logo.jpg

When it comes to the self-maintenance routines this drive has built in, one thing is for certain: they are extremely mild. After working with these drives on an older operating system -which by its very natures does not support the TRIM command- we can say it is pretty easy to get any SandForce controller based drive into a degraded state when TRIM is not a possibility. If you do not plan on using Windows 7 or another TRIM aware OS you really need to give these drives a lot of downtime to self clean or you will notice them getting slower.

The same can be said of anyone wanting to RAID these drives: think long and hard before you do. It really is a shame, but they are just too damn easy to get into a degraded state and take too long to get out of it. SandForce really, really needs to spend some time and effort on improving its self-maintenance routines. To be completely fair and balanced, earlier Indilinx firmware didn’t even have any self cleaning algorithms built in so in time there is a good chance that SandForce will address this issue and fine tune their products.


toolbox.jpg

For anyone interested in whether or not the upcoming OCZ Toolbox (0.6 beta) works on the Phoenix the answer is: yes it works. You can do a secure erase, set up an optimized partition alignment, even read the SMART information from the Phoenix via this nice little piece of software. This last bit is very nice, and much like you could read via Crystal DiskInfo (with Indilinx SSDs) the amount of read and writes that have been done on the cells, so too does the OCZ Toolbox show how many cells have been rated as bad, the number of writes that have occurred to the cells, etc.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology


Testing a drive is not as simple as putting together a bunch of files, dragging them onto folder on the drive in Windows and using a stopwatch to time how long the transfer takes. Rather, there are factors such as read / write speed and data burst speed to take into account. There is also the SATA controller on your motherboard and how well it works with SSDs to think about as well. For best results you really need a dedicated hardware RAID controller w/ dedicated RAM for SSDs to shine. Unfortunately, most people do not have the time, inclination or monetary funds to do this. For this reason our testbed will be a more standard motherboard with no mods or high end gear added to it. This is to help replicate what you the end user’s experience will be like.

Even when the hardware issues are taken care of the software itself will have a negative or positive impact on the results. As with the hardware end of things, to obtain the absolute best results you do need to tweak your OS setup; however, just like with the hardware solution most people are not going to do this. For this reason our standard OS setup is used. However, except for the XP load test times we have done our best to eliminate this issue by having the drive tested as a secondary drive. With the main drive being a WD 320 single platter drive.

For these tests we used a combination of the ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach, HDTune, Cystal Disk Benchmark, h2benchw, SIS Sandra Removable Storage benchmark, and IOMeter for synthetic benchmarks.

For real world benchmarks we timed how long XP startup took, Adobe CS3 (w/ enormous amounts of custom brushes installed) took, how long a single 4GB rar file took to copy to and then from the hard drives, then copy to itself. We also used 1gb of small files (from 1kb to 20MB) with a total 2108 files in 49 subfolders.

For the temperature testing, readings are taken directly from the hottest part of the drive case using a Digital Infrared Thermometer. The infrared thermometer used has a 9 to 1 ratio, meaning that at 9cm it takes it reading from a 1 square cm. To obtain the numbers used in this review the thermometer was held approximately 3cm away from the heatsink and only the hottest number obtained was used.


Please note to reduce variables the same XP OS image was used for all the hard drives.

For all testing a Gigabyte PA35-DS4 motherboard was used. The ICH9 controller on said motherboard was used.

All tests were run 4 times and average results are represented.

Processor: Q6600 @ 2.4 GHZ
Motherboard: Gigabyte p35 DS4
Memory: 4GB G.Skill PC2-6400
Graphics card: Asus 8800GT TOP
Hard Drive: 1x WD 320
Power Supply: Seasonic S12 600W

SSD FIRMWARE (unless otherwise noted):
G. Skill Titan: 0955
G.Skill Falcon: 1571 (AKA FW 1.3)
OCZ Apex: 955
OCZ Vertex: 1.3 (AKA FW 1571)
Patriot Torqx: 1571 (AKA FW 1.3)
Corsair P64: 18C1Q
OCZ Summit: 1801Q
A-Data S592: 1279 (AKA PRE 1.1 FW)
OCZ Agility EX 60GB: 1.3 (AKA 1.4 for MLC Indilinx Drives)
Kingston SSDNow V 40GB: 02G9
G.Skill Falcon 2: 1881 (AKA 1.4)
Kingston SSDNow V+ 128GB: AGYA0201
Corsair Nova: 1.0 (AKA 1916/1.5 for most other MLC Indilinx Drives)
Corsair Force F100: 0.2 (AKA bug fixed / modified 3.0.1)
OCZ Vertex 2: 1.0 (custom “full speed” SandForce 305 firmware)
G.Skill Phoneix: 305 (standard “mass production” firmware)
 
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AkG

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Read Bandwidth / Write Performance

Read Bandwidth


For this benchmark, HDTach was used. It shows the potential read speed which you are likely to experience with these hard drives. The long test was run to give a slightly more accurate picture.

We don’t put much stock in Burst speed readings and this goes double for SSD based drives. The main reason we include it is to show what under perfect conditions a given drive is capable of; but the more important number is the Average Speed number. This number will tell you what to expect from a given drive in normal, day to day operations. The higher the average the faster your entire system will seem.


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/read.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

HDTach really doesn’t shed any light on to whether or not the Phoenix can compete with the Vertex 2 as it really only tests sequential read speed. The Phoenix’s read performance is slightly behind that of the Vertex 2 but it is not the Vertex 2 firmware giving it an “unfair” advantage on sequential speed compared to the others. As we discussed earlier in this review the sequential speed was not really affected by SandForce in their 305 firmware. The minor differences from SandForce drive to SandForce drive is most likely is a direct result of the different NAND chips used and has nothing to do with firmware or what was done differently between the Vertex 2’s and the others.


Write Performance


For this benchmark HD Tune Pro was used. To run the write benchmark on a drive, you must first remove all partitions from that drive and then and only then will it allow you to run this test. Unlike some other benchmarking utilities the HD Tune Pro writes across the full area of the drive, thus it easily shows any weakness a drive may have.

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/write.jpg" border="0" alt="" />​

When it comes to the read performance of the various levels of NAND there is not that much difference between them, BUT when it comes to write speed there is indeed a big difference and this is a perfect example. This difference is totally and completely because G.Skill went with better NAND than the competition.
 
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AkG

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Crystal DiskMark

Crystal DiskMark


Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your hard drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and random read/write speeds; and allows you to set the number of tests iterations to run. We left the number of tests at 5. When all 5 tests for a given section were run Crystal DiskMark then averages out all 5 numbers to give a result for that section.

Read


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/cdm_r.jpg" border="0" alt="" />​

While the Phoenix may be slightly behind that of its predecessors (the original Falcon), but it is out front compared to all previous SandForce drives tested. So far it seems that G.Skill has not only effectively nullified OCZ’s custom firmware advantage, but is actually doing slightly better than the competition. In all three tests, from small to large this drive simply is the fastest SandForce drive we have ever tested.


Write


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/cdm_w.jpg" border="0" alt="" />​

While it is slightly behind other SandForce drives at sequential write speed and the mid size test, it does make up for this minor shortcoming by being better at the all important small file write speed.
 
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AkG

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Random Access Time / ATTO Disk Benchmark

Random Access Time


To obtain the absolute, most accurate Random access time, h2benchw was used for this benchmark. This benchmark tests how quickly different areas of the drive’s memory can be accessed. A low number means that the drive space can be accessed quickly while a high number means that more time is taken trying to access different parts of the drive. To run this program, one must use a DOS prompt and tell it what sections of the test to run. While one could use “h2benchw 1 -english -s -tt "harddisk test" -w test” for example and just run the seek tests, we took the more complete approach and ran the full gamout of tests and then extracted the necessary information from the text file. This is the command line argument we used “h2benchw 1 -a -! -tt "harddisk drivetest" -w drivetest”. This tells the program to write all results in english, save them in drivetest txt file, do write and read tests and do it all on drive 1 (or the second drive found, with 0 being the OS drive).

<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/random.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

It appears that a SandForce drive is a SandForce drive when it comes to random access times regardless of any modifications made to the NAND. Of course, the fact that the Phoenix can keep up with both a drive running earlier “full speed” firmware and the Vertex 2 with its custom firmware is nonetheless impressive.


ATTO Disk Benchmark


The ATTO disk benchmark tests the drives read and write speeds using gradually larger size files. For these tests, the ATTO program was set to run from its smallest to largest value (.5KB to 8192KB) and the total length was set to 256MB. The test program then spits out an extrapolated performance figure in megabytes per second.

Read


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/atto_r.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

While on the surface the Phoenix, F100 and Vertex 2 all have the same read power curve, looks can be deceiving. The Phoenix at what amounts to almost every file size is slightly faster than the other SandForce drives. Big files, little files, the Phoenix really does do a slightly better job at reading them.


Write


<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Storage/Phoenix/atto_w.jpg" border="0" alt="" />

Except for one or two minor blips the Phoenix is once again just as fast as the Vertex 2, if not just a little bit faster here and there. It really does seem that G.Skill have come up with the answer to the SandForce firmware conundrum. Hopefully, other companies will follow suit and simply use higher grade NAND rather than giving into SandForce intentionally gimping their drives.
 
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